Here is a short video explaining the ideas behind this section.

And here are examples of music in the Renaissance modes:

Dances in Aquarius

Dances in Capricorn

The ancient image of the universe in which the Earth is the centre, surrounded by the moving planetary spheres is not a scientific view but a symbolic one. The Earth stands for the whole of Creation at the centre of spiritual influences. The same image is an image of the Soul, which is a copy of the Cosmos as a whole.


The highest purpose of the classical and medieval study of music was to trace Harmony, and the numbers, to the Unity, God, which is the source all things.

But the Harmony, the inherent law within all things, which comes from Unity contains a system of different qualities which the planets were seen to represent. The form of the Cosmos was based on a musical scale, with the planets circling on their spheres at distances from the material world determined by the proportions of the musical scale.

Each note, represented by a planet, had a particular quality. The seven notes were a kind of musical parallel to the colours of the rainbow.

In practical music each note of the scale can be used as the tonic, or key note, of a scale, or mode. If we play a scale on only white notes on the piano, scales from each different note do have different qualities. There have been various attempts to match musical modes to the planets over the centuries. There seems to be no one definitive solution, though in the 16th century the system published by Gafori makes sense to me.

It’s best not to be too analytical about this. The important idea is that the soul contains the same harmonies as the cosmos. We do not need to analyse these notes and modes. The implication is that, because we are the reflection of the cosmos in miniature, or microcosms of the cosmos, we can understand and share in the spiritual meaning of the cosmos, just by being human.

Music helps us become fully human, to know ourselves. By knowing ourselves and becoming fully human we know music.

This whole business of the modes and qualities is attractive, but it has to be seen as game and not on the level of serious theology. It does, though, help us see the cosmos as everyone before about 1600 did, and not to fall into the trap of confusing the Earth as seen by the ancient and medieval mind with the Earth seen as a planet amongst others in an infinite universe. The Earth in this symbolic cosmos is the whole of material creation, in which all the influences of the heavens come together as a mixed music, hidden within everything.


The idea that there were planetary qualities seems to have been believed before the time of Plato. Did it come from Pythagoras with his original explanation of the numbers within harmony? Does it come from older mythologies?

In his “Republic” (4th century BC) Plato tells the story of Er, who sees the cosmos in a vision. Plato does not actually name the planets but he describes the cosmos as a series of eight discs spinning on a distaff with the Earth at the centre. On each disc sits a siren, not the dangerous and alluring creature of the Odyssey, but the singer of the note produced by each disc. All the notes together produce harmony.



Plato’s version very clearly makes music the key to the cosmos.

Plato numbers his discs from the outermost to the nearest. Though he does not name the planets he does mention the colour of each disc. This is all quite obscure, but the fourth is reddish, and this corresponds to Mars.


The Republic was not known to the medieval world. Like most of Plato’s works it was lost to the west until copies were brought from the east and translated in the Renaissance. Plato’s creation myth in his Timaeus was known throughout the early Christian centuries by way of commentaries by later writers. This version does not describe the musical structure but it does, very importantly, explain that our souls have the same form as the Soul of the World, or the inherent laws in everything. (see A HISTORY OF THE COSMOS)

The description of the cosmos that was most familiar in the middle ages was from Cicero’s Dream of Scipio, written in the first century BC. This was passed down with a commentary by Macrobius which inspired cosmological speculation.

Cicero describes the cosmos as formed of spheres, the shape that was accepted for many centuries

The order of the eight spheres is, from furthest to nearest:

8 The Fixed Stars (and Zodiac)

7 Saturn

6 Jupiter

5 Mars

4 Sun

3 Venus

2 Mercury

1 Moon

The Earth, the material universe.

The Cosmos, again, is made of music.

“What is this great and pleasing sound that fills my ears?” asks Scipio.

This is no physical phenomenon to be observed scientifically. Scipio’s guide, his grandfather, explains that the music is caused by the numerical relationships of the spheres and their speed of revolution, and says that:

“Gifted men imitating this harmony on stringed instruments and in singing, have gained themselves a return to this region, as have those of exceptional abilities who have studied divine matters even in earthly life.” (Translated by Joscelyn Godwin in Music, Mysticism and Magic, a sourcebook. Arkana, 1987.)

The greatest and most sophisticated depiction of this harmonious cosmic worldview is Dante’s Divine Comedy. It is a journey from Hell to Paradise, but it can also be seen as an allegory of the soul. Those in Hell have made their own punishments from their human failings, mostly from misdirected love. Love is the key to the whole vision. The heavens reveal the harmonious qualities, the planets, which combine in us to create our individual music, and the divine influences from above, concluding with the Love which moves all things.

Dante may have been a member of the Franciscan Third Order. A very Franciscan feature of his epic is that the characters are all individuals, not mythological characters. Individual things reveal God by being themselves. At the centre of the poem is the Earthly Paradise, and there Dante meets the most mysterious character in the entire epic. She is Matelda, walking by the river.  Surely she must be a person who is so perfectly balanced in her spiritual and physical influences that she is living in the Earthly Paradise while living on earth? If she were dead she would have been encountered in heaven, or as a visitor from heaven, as with Beatrice. But Matelda seems to belong to the Earthly Paradise, wandering by the river amongst the flowers and bringing to Dante’s mind Persephone.


Knowledge of Ancient Greek music is lost, in spite of much surviving theoretical writing. It is known, though, that it used what would sound to the western tradition as exotic scales. Though the music was built around the harmonic concords it used smaller intervals, microtones, for added expression. There were legends that Greek music had had enormous power over people and even things, and musicians were always longing to rediscover its secrets.

Church music deliberately avoided the expressive microtones and exotic scales of Greek music, believing that purer tuning, derived from the natural harmonic series, was closer to God. Though the Gregorian music, used for sacred chant, used a system of modes, each focussing on a different note of the scale, and named after Greek modes, these do not necessarily relate to original ancient modes.

In the middle ages there does not seem to have been any attempt to match these modes to the qualities of the planets, even though Cicero’s description would make that feasible.

There certainly was, though, an understanding that the different musical modes had different qualities and that these would suggest which mode to use for which purpose.

It was the Franciscans who were particularly concerned with the expressive quality of music itself, as distinct from the words. In Franciscan musical theory, inspired by the tradition of Francis himself dancing, singing, and playing an imaginary violin, music could convey meaning, even without the words.

Singing the mass was an essential part of evangelism. Different modes would be used to create different moods at the various points of the liturgy. This belief in the different qualities of the modes predates by two centuries Marsilio Ficino’s use of music to cause different emotional effects as part of his magical theory of medicine.

The Franciscan Juan Gil de Zamora (c1230 – 1318) was a contemporary of Bonaventure and his “Ars Musica” was probably written around 1250. This shows how music was important to the Franciscan mission very early on. His introduction gives the traditional history of music and its emotional and healing powers.

Gil conveniently gives a list of the church modes and describes their qualities. These church modes are not simply scales based on each of the notes of the diatonic (white note scale). Only the “Perfect Modes” are, in effect, scales from a keynote. (The scales on D, E, F and G). The other Church modes are adjusted to avoid discord.

For example, Mode 1, the Dorian mode or scale on D:

“One should note that the first tone is flexible, easily suited, and accommodating to all affects, as in the Song of Songs.”

This is not very specific, but his description of Mode 3 (Phrygian) is clear:

“One should note that the third tone is angry and stimulating, having vigorous leaps in its contour.”

(Peter V Loewen, Music in Early Franciscan Thought. Brill, 2013.)

This mode is the mode on E, which is, in most cases, the tone associated with Mars. There does seem to be a relationship between the musical mode and the quality which was thought to belong to the planet.

Mode 5, which can be identified with Jupiter, the Lydian mode on F is “modest and delightful, cheering the sad and softening the anxious, calling back the fallen and hopeless.”

These two modes, Mars and Jupiter, can be seen to have a musical reason for their qualities. In the Martial Phrygian mode the second is flattened in comparison with the minor scale that it resembles. This gives, to modern ears used to only minor and major scales, a sour effect in a phrase descending to the tonic, or key note which accounts for the “angry and stimulating” effect.

The Jovial Lydian mode is like a major scale but with a sharpened fourth – an F sharp instead of an F natural in the key of C. This gives a very bright and piquant quality. In classical harmony it makes the music sound as if it wants to modulate upwards a fifth.

Not all Juan Gil’s definitions are so obviously related to the planetary qualities. The modes could be used in many ways. The mood is not fixed and simple. Obviously rhythm, melodic shape and tempo have an effect.

Here examples of the church modes, with Gil’s comments.

Gil, though, is a sign that music is inseparable from Franciscan tradition, and that this is another way in which Franciscanism is a distinctive thread of Christianity with a distinctive attitude to the created world to which music is the key.

Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) made an enormous contribution to learning by translating the works of Plato and other ancient texts which had been rediscovered by way of the Islamic world into Latin. He was also a doctor, working in the medieval way with everything that corresponded with the planets in the natural world, colours, crystals, plants and particularly music. The idea that the planetary qualities governed everything and that things with a dominant quality, such a jovial orange, could be used to cure sickness by rebalancing the influences in the soul and body. This might seem misguided if we compare it to modern medicine but it may be seen to have meaning if we see the influences as largely psychological.

Music, of course, is the root of this whole worldview and Ficino’s use of music in healing is still a cause of fascination. To Ficino this is an aspect of “natural magic”, which meant the use of these entirely natural harmonies to achieve an effect. This could be seen as an extension of the concept of music into other aspects of nature. It is quite different to “demonic magic” which made use of supposed supernatural forces and which was disapproved of by the church, though not disbelieved in, unlike natural magic which was generally accepted and which depended on a belief in the harmonious unity of creation.

The Domican monk Ficino wrote of singing songs to “bring down” the influence of the planets, using the texts of the ancient Orphic hymns. There seems no doubt, though, that the music itself was intended to have the actual effect, using the modes, just as Juan Gil de Zamora had described them. As Gary Tomlinson writes in “Music in Renaissance Magic” (University of Chicago Press, 1993):

“His description of the music of Jupiter, Venus, Mercury and the sun….sounds suspiciously like conventional characterizations of the ethoses of the musical modes.”

Perhaps there was a tradition of an actual effect of modes, relating to the planets, and used for healing, throughout the middle ages. Musical healing itself, of course, has a very strong biblical authority in the story of David healing Saul’s madness. Though Ficino used fashionable classical (superficially pagan) terms he may not have been original in his use of music.

The classic statement of the meanings of the modes is a woodcut made for Francino Gafori’s “Practica Musicae”, published in 1496. Gafori was a composer and professor of music. His book is, as it says, a very intense practical textbook of composing, but it includes a section on the harmony of  the cosmos. The famous illustration seems to agree with the traditional identification of the modes and their qualities and, to me, it makes musical sense.

I particulary like the fact that Gafori adds to his outline of the Music of the Spheres the names of the nine muses, reminding us that the planets themselves are only one set of correspondences (he might have included colours, plants or stones) and that Music is the key to this system of Harmonies.

For example, the muse Euterpe is the muse attached to the Jovial Lydian mode, the mode on F. Euterpe is the muse of lyric poetry or instrumental music, but she is also associated with Delight, a translation of her name. As Juan Gil de Zamora says, the Lydian mode is “modest and delightful, cheering the sad and softening the anxious.” In my “Ravello Dialogues” Euterpe’s counterpart is The Countess, who represents the Platonic aspect of Renaissance, philosophy. Her counterpart, in the dialogues, is Maude, who may be a version of Melpomene, muse of sacred song, who mode is the Saturnine Mixolydian, the mode on G. But is Maude also Dante’s Matelda? I knew the muse before I knew “The Divine Comedy.”  This personal digression has a point – these modes are not only musical – they can also be archetypal themes in poetry and art. Perhaps they can also be recognised in real people who take on the role of a muse – and also in landscape. (See MUSIC IN THE LANDSCAPE)

The Earth, like the individual human being, has no mode, or planet of its own as its music involves all these modes forming an individual mixture. Very appropriately Gafori allocates the muse Thalia to the Earth, the muse of Comedy.

There is a great deal in this scheme which seems right and true and I am happy to take it as a summary of two thousand years of tradition from Pythagoras.

The final flowering if this musical cosmos was the work of Francesco Giorgi, which, again, belongs to the distinctive Franciscan tradition. (See GIORGI)

If we see this ancient system as a diagram of the soul it is possible to see it as a parallel to the Jungian idea of archetypes in the human subconscious. As with the Jungian archetypes this is best not defined too precisely. An archetype and a musical mode may have the strongest effect when hidden within a more complex, mixed, music. This is not something I am qualified to comment on, but this idea of musical modes in all things may be the same as the idea that Jungian archetypes pervade every aspect of creation.